Mark Doten & Peter Dimock

“People struggling to control language, control conversation, literally to control the world.”

Mark Doten Bomb 3

All images courtesy of Uli King, 2015, gouache and masking tape on jpeg.

There are novelists here in the United States who wrangle with the daily, psychic experience of living on the “safe,” domestic front of the wars our country has waged over the past fourteen years. Indeed, by now, these wars certainly feel like fixtures in the world, but the enormities of violence perpetrated in the name of “security” seem all too rarely acknowledged—and surely less so in the realm of contemporary fiction. Both Mark Doten’s delirious debut, The Infernal (released this past winter by Graywolf Press) and Peter Dimock’s bold second novel, George Anderson (Dalkey Archive, 2013), confront these very matters. What follows is a generous chunk of their challenging, and at times ecstatic, summer-long correspondence.  


Peter Dimock You’ve said the 2007 draft of The Infernal was a much slimmer book, but then you realized it wasn’t the one you wanted to publish. How did you know this, and what made you keep writing?

Mark Doten Some of the stories were already there—bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, Cheney—and with some connective tissue in between. But I wanted to be more ambitious, to think in terms of a more cohesive frame and just do more complex things. I think my agent agreed, and so he sent one story out to magazines with the idea I would keep revising for a few months. That was 2008, during the economic— [declining whistle sound]

PD Melt down.

MD Not a great time for publishing, though I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. I was happy to just keep working, to let the book grow and grow.

PD And you could feel its new shape as it was developing?

MD It started to expand—metastasize is the word I’d think of. A few months turned into eight years, and it was shaping up to be a 1,000-page book. I was writing then with the idea that there would be multiple—very different—frames. Different ways to look at the overall story that could be entered into by readers through different entryways. Each sort of illuminating the whole, offering the reader contradictory master-narratives through which they could understand the whole.

PD Did you see what you were doing as some sort of interactive game?

MD Yeah, it definitely would have put more of the work on the reader’s side. I had to abandon that idea, but I could imagine it working for another book.

PD But wait, that aspect of reading The Infernal is there now!

MD To some extent, but it’s still within a semi-unified whole, whereas this other thing would have been much more—

PD Open?

MD Imagine a hollow globe with various pegs and apertures that would allow you to view the world inside. As you took hold of different pegs and rotated the globe, you would see the interior in a totally different way. Like those anamorphotic paintings—you stand in one place and you see a pair of ambassadors, then you look from a different perspective and you see a skull. Except I wanted there to be ten different ways. Ultimately, this idea was defeated by my own limitations and the fact that what’s inside the book is already pretty vast. There’s a lot of different, complicated stuff happening inside, so—at least for me—it wasn’t working. I could attempt that kind of complicated framing with a more streamlined interior, maybe. It’s something other authors have done, of course, in various ways. Robert Coover and Nabokov. Or the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie, with its multiple and mutually exclusive origin stories.

PD Part of the exhilaration that comes from reading your book is that I don’t know how to read it. That itself is a certain trope. And there is a certain mannerism here. I haven’t read a book in a long time that made sense on its own terms, quite independently of all the conventional expectations readers will bring to it, but also without aggressively challenging me or prohibiting me from holding onto my own expectations. Your book isn’t trying to mystify, fight, or misdirect me. It’s my job to find a way into it—that multi-vocality, and me wanting to go forward to figure out what the fuck is happening. There’s tension because I know I won’t get it until I slow down. The moments of the book, processed within conventional temporal sequences, don’t necessarily cohere. If you go too fast you’ll miss things. You’ll experience the juxtapositions but won’t feel what those connections are. The effect is really powerful.

MD Thank you!

One thing that makes your novel, George Anderson, and it’s description of the legal thinking behind the US decision to legalize and normalize torture, so powerful is that its form and content are oriented to a process which will bring a certain result: a “true history of equal historical selves.” And in significant, if complex and fraught ways, it achieves that goal. Can you talk about this relationship between history and fiction?

PD Novels, I think, are attempts to bring “the news”—its etymological root—of the present as it is being lived in ordinary speech. Novels, at their best, give the immediacy of the moment a permanence of meaning, true because of the ephemeral intensity of the mental act of reading and lasting because of the stability of the book within print-culture. Fiction, as I understand it, is an indispensable way to know and articulate the experience of living in the present within the shared continuity of secular history.

I sense more and more that novels have been essential for specifying, in real time, the distinctions between war and peace. By “real time” I mean the evanescent, invisible ground of the individual consciousness of a reader’s thought in any given present. By “distinctions” I mean formal, legal, expressive articulations of the terms of human reciprocity as life and death matters. My sense is that the modern novel, from the eighteenth century to the present, has been very good at providing a popular medium for imaginatively exploring the state of play between war and peace in modern capitalist societies.

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I was taught, as a child growing up in the 1950s, that the role America was destined to play in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries was the upholder of international law and guarantor of the promise that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been put into the past forever. The US, we were taught, after the lessons of WWII, would see to it that universal human equality and liberty could now flourish. Since 9/11, neoliberalism has quite successfully replaced any such liberal political standard of value with something quite different. The US government, acting as a global security state, now seems authorized by a logic of militarized impunity to enforce a global order in which monetized wealth is both the goal and the measure of all value. That value is defined as being independent of social wealth’s distribution, use, or the planetary implications of an ideological imperative to maximize monetized extractive profits. This abstract formulation is my way of trying to characterize the objective conditions for unleashing a contemporary hell whose subjective, subconscious, experiential, and mental content—consisting, all at once, of desire, guilt, fear, ambition, ecstasy, rage, aggression, denial, pleasure, and complicity—your novel seems, to me, to capture on every page.

MD That is a very generous reading. For me, the space art opens up might be different from “bringing the news of the present to readers in ordinary speech.” And I understand that you use these terms not in a narrow documentary way, but taking into account the “subjective, subconscious, experiential, and mental…”—in short, the more fantastical elements of the novel would still be, from this perspective, “true history.”

So there is bleed between that and what I‘m about to describe, but the overriding metaphor for me is a bit different. 

My boyfriend, who’s a generous and helpful reader of my work, said that he thought The Infernal was undergirded in large part by a turning away, a refusal of history. That resonates with me: the idea of a refusal that allows for, and in some ways even forces, certain types of engagement with the repressed/disavowed/overwritten “actual” political content. When writing, I wanted the book to stick its weird mutant tentacles into as many real political light sockets as possible—and make sparks and short circuits at these points of junction. This is a fanciful image, but one that came to mind during the writing of the book—an unruly amorphous fantastical deep-sea thing with too many tentacles reaching out and plugging into the actually existing power grid at various critical points. Somehow, at the end, I hoped—and here I’m going to really run the metaphor into the ground—this grid, choking on too many tentacles, blacking out in places and sparking in others, would still have sufficient symmetry and coherence to be a novel. And so, I think the book is characterized less by an attempt to excavate some effaced historical truth but rather by a refusal of reality, or a short-circuiting of reality.

I think that the “true history” that your George Anderson’s narrator is obsessed with and the “perfect memory” that my central character searches for, are interesting points of comparison. The obsession concerning “some true history of equal historical selves” may be realizable, if contingently, subjectively. Indeed, that’s essentially what George Anderson creates, even if it has to be experienced in fiction rather than non-fiction. But the notion of “perfect memory” that preoccupies The Infernal is not representable. And so whereas the instructions for a true history of equal historical selves are a strange but executable algorithm, perfect memory is an absent, structuring limit that must remain outside the book as an impossible, ideal form. 

And I think that impossibility is part of what powers The Infernal’s turning away from reality and history: the impossible quest for perfect memory within the book, and the bodily damages that are its byproduct, mirror processes in the real world: of violence, brutality, the disintegration of information, the break down of societal norms, the erasure of history, etc.  

So I guess my novel turns away from history so it can embody—and participate in—certain forms of destruction and increasing entropy that are at play in our world. 

PD You make me so unsure of my assurances—both in writing and reading. It’s strangely a very good feeling—as if I were beginning to hear fiction as I once heard poetry. Your refusal—writing as a form of resistance and coherence and grid sabotage simultaneously—reminds me of Paul Celan. I had never thought of his art as giving the moment the force of being its own source of original narration, but you make me see that it does. It comes into its own at a level of linguistic jamming.

I read your novel as describing a condition in which the way we know things in language has been incorporated within the technologies and grids of power whose internal logic, on the evidence of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seems to float free from any historical accountability to language itself. US power seems to operate through a militarized rationality guaranteeing impunity that is, by implication, exterminatory in that the use of unlimited force for “security”—torture, rendition, universal surveillance, threatening nuclear war in the Middle East—has become its own self-justifying argument. Your book gives the feeling that every reader has to find their own relationship to the grids of power that have already appropriated all languages of representation—and that no one is off the hook! No one’s community of reference can provide safety; no one is alone in all this! That’s how I felt. Was any of this consciously on your mind?

MD “Exterminating” rationality?

PD Life’s destruction through climate change as the acceptable price for the continuation of the present rates of return on capital investment is the most obvious example. But in George Anderson I also tried to relate this underlying state of play to slavery, as the quintessential “liberal” institution. By this I mean that the social and literal deaths of entire disposable populations and entirely “other” ways of life were the corollary to the definition of “liberty” as the modern capitalist freedom to individually possess the material world—including the bodies of other people—absolutely, without any restraint of any kind through the monetization of all social wealth.

I sense that both of our novels, in very different ways, are trying to create a space in language in which some kind of choice about this, beyond possibilities presently on offer, can be imagined. I sense we are both trying to create aesthetic figurations that lead somewhere surprising beyond our forced participation in all this.

MD But language itself forces us in, forces us to participate. As soon as we are in language, we are in a contested space. The struggle for control of the language is a battle fought again and again in my book. Characters throughout—including the character named Mark Doten—make frequent gestures at trying to comprehend the Other, to get at other points of view, but most of these gestures are false. They’re gestures for himself, and their function is to control the whole rhetorical field, to force his framing on the person he’s addressing—which I think is to some extent what we’re both getting at in our work.

Power, any kind of power, in the real world or in a narrative, seeks to force a frame to greater or lesser degree. There’s both what people would now call mansplaining and a specific vector of that type of phenomenon: a privileged, white-guilt attempt to preempt the objections of the Other, thereby actually dominating the rhetorical field and insisting on one’s own framing. I think that’s something you see repeated in my book—these people struggling to control language, control conversation, literally to control the world. But they don’t acknowledge what they’re doing. They can’t. They don’t see it.

PD I’m not saying this right, but there’s an energy here. It consists, all at once, of the yearning for power, or the absolute, the way power can be disembodied and how the frame of coherence and the frame of power and the frame of agency, and the frame of impunity, too, provide a current uniting the whole world. That energy seems to be a promise that is psychologically available to all your book’s characters. The fact that the price of this violently productive power is torture and disposable populations is horrendous. Your book depicts so graphically the rending of nerves, the literal butchering of the physical body. Whatever the rationale, the power expresses itself through an unlimited violence. 

MD Which disavows it.

PD Yes. Power disavows the violence of the violence—the unregistered, unmeasured, unspeakable magnitudes of its injustice! To know this and then still to participate is to disavow value itself.

So—let me here confess my faith—the book, in the tradition of the novel to which I wish to belong and contribute, creates a literary position that seems inherently redemptive, even if any given novel formally disavows any and all such hope. In The Infernal, I can feel all of Pynchon. One can feel the literary genealogy of previous big books that have attempted to deal with the metaphysics of American power—the relation between language and agency and power and transcendence. It makes a place for itself in that tradition. But you also seem to be suggesting that we are at the end of that tradition. What I really love is that it questions whether that tradition is over, or whether the critical literary tradition about the violence of transcendent American power can be continued. It’s a serious question. Your novel is not playing at it.

Can American culture create meaningful criticism of American power through representations that are rooted in that power’s own energies now? Can an individual author or artist do it? It’s not clear to me that the answer is “yes.”

MD I don’t think in terms of transcendence, exactly. My favorite American novels tend to be fragmented and ruminative, and the American writers whose novels I value most, like Melville, Faulkner, Didion, the Peter Taylor of Summons to Memphis, Dennis Cooper, Wallace Shawn, and Hilton Als—here I’m waving a magic wand that reclassifies The Fever and The Women as novels—they all wrote books we might characterize as transcendent, though the older ones do, in fact, seem a bit more so. But part of me really resists getting on board with the notion that we’re at the end of the line. This idea that literature was better 50 years ago, and better still 100 years ago, is seductive and might even be true, but isn’t there something inadmissible in imagining you’re at the end of a tradition with a form as durable as the novel? A kind of dangerous nostalgia?

My goal with The Infernal was just to pull together a lot of different types of progressively insane first-person narrators into a single, larger thing that tries to grapple with America.

PD But the voice for that single, larger thing is the question, and you’ve come up with an approach that puts that voice into doubt.

MD Definitely, full of doubt.

PD What was guiding you when you were writing the book?

MD I think it was rage at the Bush administration. And helplessness. That phrase: impotent rage. That was what those years, especially the earlier years, felt like. That was what the war felt like to me. You’re reading stories in the paper, protesting with tens of thousands of people, marching against the war, and it doesn’t matter. It’s coming, and there’s nothing you can do.

PD Did that surprise you? Because the presidential aide’s statement you quote speaks to this. The way you use it as one of the two epigraphs for your novel is, for me, revelatory:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

I always knew there had to be a heart to how the logic of contemporary impunity works. This comes close, I think, to naming it. The imperial move is to create one’s own reality with no position outside it from which to hold power accountable in language. Language has become technocratically instrumentalized and cannot provide an independent ground of agency or judgment.

MD “Judiciously, as you will.”

PD Dominative power becomes its own argument, and any words that come after that are irrelevant. Language is no longer a universal, natural human faculty for “innovative, unbounded” (Chomsky’s words) value creation. But I think there are moments in history when language resumes and reasserts that capacity and authority.

MD Let’s talk again about your post-9/11 book, George Anderson. The narrator is the ghostwriter of memoirs by American political figures. The book is an unsolicited set of instructions to David Kallen, the Justice Department lawyer who, in 2004, wrote the memo providing the legal justification for US torture overseas. The narrator believes that these instructions will prepare Kallen to participate in an important work of history. This David Kallen is based on Daniel Levin, and within the book you include the full, actual memo from the Office of Legal Counsel—that is, the memo written by Daniel Levin. Where’d you get the idea for that?

PD Like you, it came from rage. I was reading Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side. Her book is a very good—and chilling—narrative account of how the Bush administration adopted and justified torture as official US policy in its war on terror. What so struck me was the willingness—the blitheness—with which officials at all levels were able to disconnect themselves from the enormities of the war crimes and crimes against humanity they were so obviously committing by using a neoliberal managerial language of maximizing information acquisition by “legally” redefining “torture” as “death” or “organ failure.”

Mayer’s book contains a riveting section on Daniel Levin. Levin and I overlapped as undergraduates at Harvard. I was trying to imagine the subjectivity of the actor who did what he did. According to Mayer, Levin’s idealistic ambition ever since law school was to serve in the Office of Legal Counsel. (This is the part of the executive branch charged with the responsibility to advise the president and other policymakers concerning the constitutionality of their actions.) In the wake of the firestorm resulting from disclosure of the secret memos and legal opinions authorizing torture, Levin was given the task of replacing the Office of Legal Counsel’s 2002 interpretation of the torture statute that permitted the CIA to use techniques of interrogation defined as torture by the US Justice Department, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and all medical experts. There is no American case law on torture, since the US prides itself on having always rejected its use by any branch or agency of government. So Levin goes to Fort Bragg and orders Special Forces SERE (Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape) trainers to waterboard him so that he can obtain direct evidence of the pain inflicted by waterboarding as an interrogation technique. This was an amazingly brave thing to have done, it seems to me. Unlike CIA detainees, he was given a hand signal by which to stop the process at any moment. He uses it within something like forty seconds! He understood immediately that the legal finding that waterboarding didn’t constitute torture was a grotesque abuse of language and law.

But somewhere in the process of writing his memo withdrawing the OLC’s previous approval of torture, he inserts—or is forced to insert—a footnote (#8) that undoes his own withdrawal of approval of Bybee’s document. He signs the memorandum and submits it to Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey (now the Director of the FBI) on December 30, 2004, the day before New Year’s Eve. By doing this he upholds the legality—and grants impunity to the perpetrators—of torture authorized and committed at the highest levels of American government, even in the document that supposedly withdraws that legal approval!

Why did Levin sign it? It would not have the force of law without his signature.

MD He’s basically turning his own memo into toilet paper. Like, by the way, here’s a little footnote that says, Takesies backsies.

PD His act of signing that document says that words don’t matter. He is destroying the power of words to create value.

MD I find the torture stuff bizarre because, time and again, they say it doesn’t really work. That’s what we know about torture. Enshrining in law the ability to do this seems like the most bizarre kind of power play. What does it mean that you’re giving yourself legal permission to do these things that we know are abhorrent to most of the international community and to many American citizens. It’s a fucking slap in the face to history. And why? There’s something pathological about it that’s not explicable by any actual utility.

PD Do you want my theory?

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MD Yeah.

PD The Bush administration was full of guys who evaded the draft during the war in Vietnam. They lost their chance to become “real men,” as so much of American culture defines that status. So there’s limitless rage as a result. I can’t help but think that the authorization of torture has something to do with that rage. Through torture, they were acting something out about their own relationship to physical violence, state power, and their identities as powerful American men of enormous, unearned privilege. I sense that torture, for them, was not about the present but about their own pasts.

MD Yeah, I mean how much do these guys actually invest in the fantasy, and how much is it calculation? The psychological dimensions fascinate me, because it’s very seductive to make an argument based on: Oh, W.’s finishing up the job his father couldn’t do, and he’s proving himself to be a man. And yet, at the same time, aren’t there decades of planning from think tanks, moneyed interests, and the military industrial complex coming together? Those are the vast, tectonic forces moving beneath the psychodramas of these individual, and interchangeable, figures.

So how does the childhood bullshit from George W. Bush or any of these people fit into it? Well, from one side it’s irrelevant, and from the other side it’s everything. But in my book, I blow up the childhood bullshit side until it consumes everything else.

PD Have you ever visited Iraq or Afghanistan? Have you been there?

MD No. I haven’t.

I’m very much in the Franz-Kafka-writing-Amerika school, the Statue of Liberty holding a sword—I had that as an epigraph for a while, the opening of Amerika where the main character arrives on the boat, and he sees the Statue of Liberty there with its sword held aloft, and it’s such a great moment. It tells you everything you need to know about that book right away. Kafka is deep in the DNA of The Infernal. I just love him because he’s someone who has those narrators who are constantly thinking. His late stories are magnificent, like “The Burrow,” “Investigations of the Dog,” or “Josephine the Singer.” Have you read those?

PD No.

MD So great. They’re just these narrators sitting and thinking through things. So much digression. They’re very unusual stories in that they don’t get to any sort of objective. My favorite moment in all of world literature are these three stories Kafka wrote at the end of his life. One’s told by a dog, one’s told by a community of mice, and one’s told by a creature living in a burrow. There’s a fourth called “The Little Woman” that is also in that school, but it’s not as good. Kafka’s inspired my use of weird, burrowing thought patterns that endlessly self-justify and self-interrogate. He taught me that great way to build some of my own characters—a quality of unreliability and of seeking that is also a cover-up of some sort of deeper lack in the character’s life.

PD Characters looking for something within, something they know they don’t have and won’t find? As if language were a machine for searching in the service of not finding.

MD Peter, as someone who works both an editor and a writer, I’m curious about others who have done the same. You started out in publishing as an assistant at Random House, after not writing a dissertation in American history. You said you met Toni Morrison when she was leaving her job as an editor there and writing Beloved. I want to talk about that, but perhaps we should start even earlier, with the question of when you knew you wanted to be a writer.

PD I had two parents both of whom very much wanted to be published writers but didn’t know how to risk the disappointments of rejection. They weren’t willing to subject their manuscripts to professional editorial criticism and possible drastic demands for revision or refusal. I realize now that I grew up under a certain tyranny of two people’s fears regarding professional editorial rejection, or perhaps the greater harm caused by writers not facing such fears directly and making their peace with them. On family trips there would always be my father’s briefcase behind the driver’s seat, filled with his promising but always unfinished manuscript on Homer’s Odyssey.

MD Did he ever finish it?

PD Yes. It was published in 1990, forty years after he began. Without telling him, a colleague took the manuscript from the top of my father’s desk, copied it, and sent it to a scholarly press that accepted it. Years before, my father had sent an earlier draft to a publisher in New York who rejected it, and he never sent the manuscript out again. As a child, I assumed that this must be the way all books got written.

MD You just assumed everyone’s dad had an unpublished manuscript behind the driver’s seat—

PD Yes. You just assume the life you’re given is everyone else’s too.

MD But when did you know you wanted to write?

PD I must have picked up on both my parents’ deepest ambition. I remember sitting at the dining room table by myself copying Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped in block letters. That’s what I thought writing was: copying letters. I guess it is actually. I remember thinking, This is hard and it’s going to take me forever, then getting up to go outside to play.

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In retrospect, I think I went into book publishing to demystify its hold over my parents. But there came a moment while I was at Random House when I was editing over the phone with an author whose work I really liked and felt this sudden overwhelming surge of rage. I was quite frightened by it. I got off the phone as soon as I could. I realized as I was hanging up the phone that I wanted someone to be doing that for me—for something I had written. Right then I vowed I would create a manuscript, however long it took me, with the purpose of showing it to editors in the business whom I respected and who would tell me whether it was publishable or not. If I did that, whatever their verdict, I realized I would be free of the frustrations of a wannabe writer and could get on with the rest of my life. The result was A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family.

Toni Morrison showed me that you could be an original thinker about American history without being an academic. She taught me you could think and write and act in the world as an intellectual without having to be employed by a university. Her writing makes American history open to sudden, surprising, drastic revision in the everyday life of the present in a way that changes both American literature and history, I think. 

MD I understand about being a writer who is also an editor and knowing the lay of the land. I work at an independent press and try to publish stuff that’s at the limit of what I can get away with in terms of formal literary innovation. I also acquire stuff that’s more straightforward. Did such calculations go through your head at all, knowing that there were going to be some built in audience limitations if you were writing something unusual?

PD I didn’t think about that really. In A Short Rhetoric I was trying to come as close as I could to getting down on paper what I most wanted to say about American history. I had failed to find a voice for that as a scholar of American history and American studies. The form came out of my determination to find a way to get across my sense that the Vietnam War was, and still is, an unacknowledged terrible choice made by American political elites, and too many American citizens, of empire over democracy. We still seem unable to face that reality—and act on it. But without consciously meaning to, I have kept my fiction and non-fiction worlds quite separate. My editing and publishing work has so far mainly been concerned with non-fiction. The writing I care most about has always been fiction.

MD Toni Morrison is a very interesting writer. She is not, by any means, conventional. What’s the secret to her success? Why did she connect so broadly with an American and world audience?

PD Like many great writers, I sense she knew from her earliest moments how to value, against all odds, a world the dominant culture around her was devaluing and repressing. She was determined from very early on to give representation to the richness and possibilities for transcendence that African Americans and African American historical experience could make available to American culture at large. White American culture keeps deforming itself out of fear and the desperate falseness of a security it somehow thinks comes from not recognizing the absolute centrality of black lives to American democracy. Reading Morrison’s fiction gives readers the experience of knowing that valuing something at its rightful, full measure is the only chance there is for not being deformed by the violence and fear that American history has always left at the core of every inhabitant’s subjectivity. She makes visible possibilities of value, mutuality, and reciprocity that the reader suddenly realizes have always been there. Her books lead people to see what might lie beyond their fear. The agile grace of her style I associate with the deep knowledge her work conveys—that art is playful and, at the same time, a deadly serious discipline with which to wrestle, and sometimes temporarily outwit, fear. Reading The Infernal gives a similar wonderful sense of witnessing the creation of a new style that its composition requires.

MD It’s unquestionable that literature can alter the way a country perceives itself, even a country as big at the United States. It can have affects. I often think that in the writing within marginalized groups there’s more opportunity to create a new narrative, both for that group and the larger culture, too.

There are a few gay writers who came to prominence in the ’70s and ’80s. Edmund White forged a certain type of gay identity—there’re tons of gay people who wouldn’t read his books but were affected by him, and that helped to build the idea of what gay identity is. It’s a certain particular view that also then leaves out a lot of people and a lot of things, but there’s no doubt such books changed the culture.

PD But you never had that feeling about yours?

MD At most, I thought I’d be a gadfly.

PD It might be generational. I’ve always had political hope for novels—for the way they provide a kind of moral surprise that feels transformative: One Hundred Years of SolitudeGravity’s RainbowSula, BelovedThe Master and Margarita, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Crusoe in England.”

MD If I had believed that my book could affect any sort of change, maybe I would have written a different book. But, I felt completely free from any notion of utility. The only thing I wanted to do was get my tentacles into as many places in the culture as I could and squeeze.

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